Karen looked up from her computer, on which she had been reading newspapers from places where we have lived, and said, “Geraldine died.” I was lying in a hostel bed, relaxing after a ten-mile hike along the ocean, the beach flanked by tall dunes. It had been a picture-perfect afternoon, the sky festooned with great puffy clouds, their bases dark grey and their tops looking like cotton candy. Now, Karen’s words drew me away from this beauty and back to the sorrow that always accompanies the death of someone you know.
Geraldine was my mother’s first cousin, her favorite of all of the many cousins she knew when she was a girl in the mining village where they all lived. I remember her as a pretty young woman, with long black hair. She lived a block away from my mother, in a house overlooking a big bend in the Allegheny River, whose bottom was filled with the white sand used to make the glass in the factory three miles upriver. The house was larger than its neighbors, but still with the tarpaper shingles so common in poor coal-mining towns in Western Pennsylvania. Her father, Dario, my grandmother’s brother, and his wife Verona, kept an enormous garden, which helped to feed their large family, four girls and two boys. Dario had done better than most men in town, securing a job with a mining equipment company, thus avoiding spending the rest of his life in the mines. Not rich certainly, but more fortunate than his sister, whose husband had died young and who had to take in laundry, clean houses, and unload dynamite at the mine face. I can imagine my mother, walking down the coal cinder alleyway, lined with outhouses, to visit and share gossip with her cousins and maybe take home some much-needed vegetables from her uncle’s and aunt’s garden. Perhaps when I was born, Geraldine held me and said, “What a beautiful baby.”
Geraldine married a factory worker, Joe, a handsome man who later stood for my confirmation and whose name I took, adding Joseph to Michael and Daniel. My father did the opposite; he married Geraldine’s lovely cousin. I didn’t see much of my relatives from the mining town after I left home. But Geraldine and my mother were close, and I saw her sometimes when I visited. She was a likable person, interesting, different. She loved to paint, and some of her work won local prizes. Religious to a fault, she relished talking about the priests in her church and was enraged when the diocese decided to close it. With regret, she joined my mother’s parish, but though she attended mass nearly every day, I don’t think she believed that her prayers found their way so easily to God’s ear as they had before.
My mother’s sad and tragic death—run over by a postal truck—hit Geraldine hard. I visited her house a couple of weeks later, and we talked about it. We looked at old photographs, and she showed me some of her paintings. They were good, reflective of her spirit. I gave her my mother’s rosary as a remembrance. I called her from the road a couple of times after that. I wish I had spoken to her just one more time.
Living was difficult where Geraldine was born, and no bed or roses in the factory town where she spent her adult life. Not just dangerous, unhealthy labor, and foul air and dust, but the constant, implacable insecurity that breeds a litany of fears. Life was hard as a diamond but not nearly so beautiful, and most especially for women, who often bore too many children and always found their chores never ending. My grandmother put it well when she told me, “Michael, it hasn’t been a happy life.” Yet, though the pleasures were few, there were some. Music, reading, a friendly drink, jokes and stories, ethnic picnics, sports, swimming in the river, the hope that your children would do better than you. Geraldine’s painting.
I’d like to believe with John Donne that no man is an island, that we’re all a part of the main. That every man’s death diminishes each of us. Geraldine’s death no doubt diminishes her siblings, her son, those who knew her, me and Karen. But soon enough, we’ll all be dead too, and then what? Life passes us by before we die; the forgetting commences afore the end. Geraldine had aspirations, as did all of those in the mining village and factory town. But the cold truth is that these didn’t matter. They all lived according to others’ wills and desires. Men controlled by their bosses, women by their husbands. Children waiting their turn for one fate or the other. I envy Geraldine her faith. At least for her, there was a higher power that would judge us all, and would surely judge her as worthy of the highest glory.